Who would have thought that the most famous artist in the world would achieve his fame for paintings he left unfinished? The incomplete head of Christ in Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper makes the point, but it's far from the only example of his fractional work. Starting July 16 through Oct. 6, the Met will show the half-done St. Jerome Praying in the Wilderness to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Da Vinci's death.

Reasons why

The undeveloped parts of Da Vinci's work are so pervasive that New York Times art critic Holland Cotter just wrote at length about it under the headline "What Leonardo da Vinci Couldn’t Finish." The going theory for Da Vinci's incomplete work is that he was a perfectionist.

Citing historian Giorgio Vasari, Cotter wrote, "Before Leonardo did anything he had to know everything: how his paints and varnishes were made, how the human body was internally structured..." Is that really the reason? I have a different theory.

Second opinion

Given that Da Vinci's unfinished picture parts center on the human figure and his eye for detail fixes on the Great Outdoors (as in a breeze billowing an angel's robe in Virgin of the Rocks), it's clear what he cared about. Nature, not man.

He said as much in his Notebook: "Human subtlety will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple or more direct than does nature because in her inventions nothing is lacking and nothing is superfluous."

Where's the rest of me?

Exemplifying Da Vinci's view is his Saint Jerome Praying the Wilderness who was on a retreat in the Syrian desert. You see him crouched in a craggy setting holding a stone with which to beat his chest in penance. A lion, his faithful companion, lies at his feet. A distant landscape of mountains and a lake complete the picture.

Cotter quotes exhibit curator at the Met, Carmen C. Bambach characterizing the work like this: "Relatively little painting got done, and a lot of what got done was never finished."

Land ho!

But what got done and what didn't make my point. The saint's features seem fractional. In contrast, the landscape behind him, though misty, is easily discernible. Baumbach even calls the natural setting "enchanting ...bringing the refreshment of color - sky-blue, tree-green." She also acknowledges Da Vinci's love of the land like this:

"In the landscape, we see the naturalist, the botanist, the weather-watcher...It may say something about this lover that we find traces of the artists' fingerprints in the landscape passage where he dabbed and smooshed paint by hand to create a soft-focus atmosphere."

Nature boy

All that said, however, Cotter concludes, "Why Leonardo left this and other pictures unfinished, we can't know.

Ms. Bambach suggests that the answer may lie in his relentlessly inquisitive personality." Nah. he was a tree hugger, who went so far as to introduce landscapes to portrait painting.

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